This article was originally published in the World Orphans Spring Insight Magazine 2019.
In 2003, my friend, Jake—a commander of a US Marine Special Forces platoon in the Iraq War—stood on a road in Iraq and watched a distant car speeding towards his post. It screeched to a halt a few hundred yards away, and a man jumped out of the vehicle, running towards Jake and the other soldiers with hands raised. Jake suspected he might be a suicide bomber, so he grabbed a few guys and ran forward, attempting to stop the man. As the group ran towards the man, a large, black, military truck appeared suddenly, stopping just behind the unidentified man’s car. Four men carrying automatic weapons jumped out and began spraying the vehicle with bullets. The man turned, cried out, and sprinted back towards the assailants. In that moment, Jake realized what was happening: the man was not a terrorist, but a poor farmer fleeing with his family. Iraqi Special Forces had been demanding that civilians fight the Americans, and if anyone refused, they had to flee for their lives.
Years later, Jake would introduce me and the other founding board members of Nuru, his international development nonprofit, to Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who helped the development community understand what was happening that fateful day in the middle of Iraq. In his book, Development as Freedom, Sen argues that poverty—as exhibited in the desperate flight of this man with his family—is best explained as a lack of meaningful choices. Put positively, he writes, “Development [the removal of poverty] consists of the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency.” Thus, we know that desperate people do irrational, desperate things.
Most of us live in a world where freedom and choice are givens: we can choose to pursue or not pursue an education. We can choose to go to or avoid the doctor, pharmacist, or dentist. We can choose a profession or vocation we believe will support ourselves and our families. We have access to the Bible and an untold number of teachings and spiritual resources at the click of a button. As Americans, we enjoy the freedom to choose in nearly every aspect of our lives.
Sadly, many in our world do not have that opportunity. And, as Sen points out, many in the development community have been, if not a roadblock to freedom, at least a hindrance.
When I was eleven, my family moved into a remote community in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. The elders came to my father and told him they wanted to start a school for the children of the surrounding villages. As a college professor, it would have been easy for my father to devise a plan to make this happen, but that is not what he did. Instead, he asked, “Well, how are you going to do it?”
Over the next few weeks, I remember my father and Tange, the chief elder, and some of the other men sitting around a makeshift table in our dining room. They talked about how they could build classrooms, pay for teachers and supplies, get government recognition, and many other things they would need to see their dream come true. My father listened, asked questions, gave opinions, and encouraged the leaders, but I don’t ever remember him telling them what they should do. Instead, I frequently heard the words, “It’s your school—your dream.”
A few months later, the first class of the Kinona Valley was inducted with children ranging in age from five to 18. You have never seen so many proud parents.
It can be easy in development work to become paternalistic by coming in, assessing the situation, gathering resources, and dictating a plan of action. But this approach, in reality, only replaces one unfreedom, one type of poverty, with another. And desperate people in desperate situations may see no other alternative than to go along with the plan. However, it is incumbent upon us all to understand that poverty, at its root, is founded in unfreedom, and we must come alongside our brothers and sisters as they pursue their own dreams.